‘40,000 years still on my mind’: the marginalisation of Indigenous memory in Sydney

Burnum Burnum, an Aboriginal activist, stated that when the British settled in Sydney in 1788 ‘they landed in the middle of a huge art gallery’. In fact, in the Sydney region, there are more than 10,000 pieces of Aboriginal artwork. From fish painted on rocks in Broken Bay to footprints carved into the ground, the memory of Sydney’s Indigenous inhabitants is etched into the landscape. Yet there is a common perception that indigeneity in Australia only exists in remote outback locations. In reality, 76% of Aboriginal people inhabit urban spaces with over 52,000 living in urban Sydney

Tension between Indigenous and settler memory is an issue in many cities with a legacy of settler colonialism. As the region where British settlements were first founded, this contention is especially apparent in Sydney. This article will explore the ways in which the legacy of colonial dispossession has marginalised, misrepresented and erased Indigenous memory from Sydney. Despite claiming to be a multicultural city, the formal representations of Indigenous history in Sydney conform to dominant national narratives of settler superiority. 

An act of forgetting

Reinforced by European perceptions of their cultural and ethnic superiority, the First Fleeters founded their settlement in the Sydney region on the basis of res nullius, a policy whereby, according to John Locke’s theory of Natural Law, the land must have been ‘improved’ for a group to claim sovereignty over it. Consequently, on the authority of James Cook and Joseph Banks, the Indigenous population were deemed too primitive to legally claim ownership of the land. Grace Karskens has therefore described Sydney as a ‘city of stories’ based on a nineteenth-century narrative that defined the city as predominantly white. In 1836 William Romaine Govett wrote that Sydney’s Native population had ‘already gone… [and to find them] we must dive into the interior of the country’. This erroneous impression was consolidated by the death of an Aboriginal man named Boatswain in 1850 who was reported to be ‘the last of the Botany Bay tribe’.

In reality, Aboriginal people never disappeared from Sydney. But their presence challenged the emergent national memory that privileged white settler ownership of the land. Therefore, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Indigenous people were expunged from urban memory in Sydney. 

Multicultural Australia?

In 1989 the Australian government outlined a ‘National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia’, which marked a policy change to multicultural nationalism. In theory this change should have resulted in not only the acknowledgement of Indigenous memory, but also the celebration of it. While the memorialisation of Native history has increased, Paula Hamilton and Paul Ashton have argued that neo-colonial notions of nation and race still determine memory in Australia. For their memory to be accepted, minorities in Australia must place themselves within the dominant national narrative. Therefore, as Aboriginal history is fundamentally in contest to Sydney’s white settler memory, formal memorials, exhibitions and commemorations of Indigenous history in Sydney cannot challenge the dominant myth that settlers ‘own’ the land. 

By excluding this aspect of the Indigenous experience, the city is choosing to forget a major part of the region’s history. The few formal Indigenous memorials that do exist often ignore Aboriginal agency, instead choosing to remember their loss. For instance, the Edge of the Trees memorial remembers initial interactions between the First Fleeters and the Eora people, an exchange which occasioned the loss of Native land across the country. This memorial therefore invokes the memory of generations of violence in the nineteenth century Frontier Wars. By conforming to national narratives and remembering Indigenous loss, not only do these memorials fail to convey a sense of belonging for Native citizens, they actually symbolise the trauma that their ancestors faced. 

Furthermore, the misappropriation of Indigenous memory is frequently evident in performative sites of memory. In 2000, Sydney hosted the Summer Olympic Games. Coinciding with commemorations for the Australian bicentenary and the Millennium, these games offered a unique opportunity to present a new multicultural Australian city to the world. In reality, masked by a veneer of multiculturalism, the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony held on 15 September 2000, presented a teleological narrative progressing from Aboriginal prehistory to white settler modernity. The ceremony began with a young, white representation of Australia appropriating Indigenous culture by ‘dreaming’ about the Aboriginal past. Native traditions were then promptly disrupted by the seemingly inevitable arrival of Captain Cook. 

After that point, Aboriginal memory was largely forgotten, having been replaced by ‘modernity’ in the form of industrial and technological advancements. This was consolidated by the commentary provided by television broadcasters such as the major Australian network Channel Seven. Gary Wilkinson, narrating the ceremony for Channel Seven, introduced the performance as the ‘evolution of Australia from its ancient Indigenous origins, to a modern 21st century society’. Wilkinson’s description of the British arrival as an ‘irresistible force’ confirmed the linear narrative being depicted. The ceremony was widely celebrated for its multicultural depiction of Australian society. However, Aboriginal protestors stated that its narrative perpetuated the romantic idea of Native people as ‘noble savages’, and activists criticised the use of Indigenous icons such as Cathy Freeman as ‘window dressing’

Moreover, the deliberate removal of Aboriginal sites of importance has also been used to exclude Native people from urban memory. The inner-city district of Redfern, and especially the area around Eveleigh Street, colloquially known as ‘the Block’, has become a centre for Indigenous consciousness and self-determination over the past 50 years. However, this site of belonging for urban Aborigines, has recently come under threat from new developments and gentrification which is outpricing local people. The Pemulwuy Project, a 16-story student accommodation is currently under construction. Ironically, despite being named after a significant Indigenous figure who defended his people against settler violence, the project is destroying features of an important Aboriginal space. For instance, in 2019, a piece of Indigenous street art which depicted the Aboriginal flag was demolished as part of this new development. Symbolising the continued dispossession of Native people, Redfern has become, as Ceredwin Spark argued, ‘both a place of emplacement and displacement’ for urban Aborigines.

This contest between white settler and Indigenous memory in Sydney has continually marginalised the city’s Aboriginal population. The ‘Indigenous in the City’ report states that in all social spheres, from health and employment to education and housing, urban Indigenous populations face inequality and discrimination. In fact, it states that urban Aborigines are far more likely to be disadvantaged when compared to their non-Native neighbours. For instance, a study conducted by Nicholas Biddle in 2009 highlighted how in NSW there is a 42% difference in rank between the social wealth of Indigenous and non-Indigenous urban citizens. ‘Indigenous invisibility’ in urban memory and the perception that ‘real’ Native people live in the outback has had major implications for government policy: most funding for Aborigines is sent to remote locations exacerbating racial inequalities in urban spaces.

Assertions of Indigenous memory as a form of protest

However, the marginalisation of Aborigines has also resulted in assertions of Indigenous memory which undermine prevailing national narratives. Whether through protest, street art or temporary exhibitions, assertions of Indigenous memory have been an important way that urban Aboriginal people in Sydney have contested their peripheral role in the national memory. Simon Sleight has argued that the absence of tangible Native monuments has been rectified by the use of ‘alternative forms’ of memorial which are often temporary or illegal. 

For instance, the 40,000 years mural painted onto a wall in Redfern was restored in 2018, and represents an important assertion of identity and ownership in the light of recent redevelopment projects in the area. It depicts the rainbow serpent, a powerful image in Aboriginal cosmology, the first footsteps of Native people and a quote from the Aboriginal icon Joe Geia’s song: ‘40,000 years is a long long time/ 40,000 years still on my mind’. This mural is a claim to sovereignty over Sydney, one that states that Indigenous Australians lived on the land before white settlers arrived and they are still living on the land now. While intersections of memory are rarely legitimised or valued by non-Native people, these assertions of Aboriginal memory are central to the creation of an urban identity for Indigenous Australians.


GH Martin has argued that the different layers of memory held in urban spaces can be understood as a ‘palimpsest’. However, when assessed from an Indigenous lens, a new dimension must be added to the urban palimpsest: not all layers of memory in urban spaces are remembered equally. In Sydney, the site of the first British settlement in Australia, the legacy of Aboriginal dispossession and resulting Indigenous invisibility has omitted Native people from Sydney’s memory. Thus, national narratives of settler sovereignty have been the prevailing memory visible in the city. This is because assertions of Native memory fundamentally challenge white claims to land ownership. 

Aboriginal memory remains a source of major contention in Sydney, and it is therefore clear that decolonisation is still an ongoing process in Australia. Significantly, Prime Minister Paul Keating apologised to Aboriginal people in a speech given at Redfern in 1992. Keating declared that ‘complex as our contemporary identity is, it cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia’. This acknowledgement marked an important recognition of the role Indigenous people have played in the history of Australia and the history of Sydney. Despite the more reactionary stance adopted by subsequent governments, Keating’s apology indicates the potential for a postcolonial Sydney that celebrates its Indigenous heritage and does not marginalise, misappropriate or erase its memory. 

By Julia Bennett

Julia is a third year History student with an interest in the history and policy surrounding migration and Indigenous rights. She is one of the Head Editors at King’s Think Tank and has also worked within the Global Health policy centre. 

The featured image (top) is by Alejandro Ortiz Pellicer on Flickr. It is licenced under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). 


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